Serving the story above all else: an interview with letterer Rob Leigh

Serving the story above all else: an interview with letterer Rob Leigh

It’s nigh impossible to read a comic book without the work of a letterer. In fact, I’d go one stop further and say it’s impossible to read a comic book without the work of a good letterer. The presence of a letterer is much like that of a bass player in a rock band: if they’re doing their job, you may not notice it, but if they aren’t doing their job, then you really notice it. You can’t read words in a comic if there isn’t someone to put them there, and if they aren’t implemented with care and skill then you might as well not even bother.

With work on comics like Shazam, Spongebob Suarepants, The Bridge, and Detective Comics, Rob Leigh is indeed a great letterer. His sound effect work on Super Sons is worth noting alone, and his Dave Gibbons-inspired lettering on Doomsday Clock is a pitch-perfect nod to the style of Watchmen. Rob was kind enough to answer a few questions we had about his time in the industry and his lettering process, and he gave us so much more. Read on as he regales us with personal anecdotes about Peter Tomasi, how his style is adapted to the story being told, and he even teaches us a thing or two about pulling inspiration from the world around you.

You work with Peter Tomasi quite a bit.  Is that coincidental, or do you guys have each other on speed dial?

Hah! Peter and I met in boot camp after the attack on Pearl Harbor inspired us to enlist, and…okay, we don’t go back QUITE that far, but we’ve worked with one another for over 25 years. We both started at DC Comics around the same time, he in editorial and me in production.

He and I had parallel childhoods in some ways. We’re about the same age, both grew up in the NY Metropolitan area, though he was from Brooklyn, and I grew up in the ‘burbs of New Jersey. He also has the good sense to be a Yankees fan.

When I was inking, I was one of his fireman--a guy you’d bring in when a book was hot. As a letterer, you’ll see my name on his projects because he often requests me, for which I’m very grateful.

We’ve got a good rapport, and we can be honest with each other’s contribution to the job. I may make a suggestion that a line might be worded a little differently, or he may say, “Can you try this another way?--I’m not sure it’s working for me.” And nobody gets their feelings hurt, because we both have the same goal: to tell the best story we can. We do call each other--sometimes about the work, sometimes because the Yanks did something stupid in a game.

I’ll tell you a quick Tomasi story: I did two tours of duty at DC. I was a production guy early in my career, and a freelance inker at the same time. I left staff to go freelance full-time, then came back to DC in ’03 when they started the in-house digital lettering department. In ’06, I returned to the freelance life, and the following year, Peter shed his editorial robes to write full-time. 

Anyway, the first day he goes freelance, I’m in my studio lettering, with Mike And The Mad Dog (a New York City sports talk radio show on WFAN) playing on the radio. Host Mike Francesa was fielding listener calls, and I hear him say “Okay, we got Peter from New York--you’re on the air.” I think, “Peter from NY, huh? Wouldn’t that be funny if it were Tomasi?” And before the caller gets three words out, I KNEW it was him. By the time he hung up, I had already sent him an email to bust his hump. “Really?! THIS is what you’re doing your VERY FIRST DAY as a freelancer?” We had a good laugh over that.

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Like most letterers, you work on a wildly visually diverse set of books. How do you go about developing a lettering aesthetic for any given project?

Well, that all depends on the project. If it’s a period piece, you’d want your look to mesh with the time being portrayed. Or in the case of CYBORG, you’d naturally have a tech flavor present.

There are times when you fit your aesthetic to the character or subject matter, and there are times when you tailor it to the art. Sometimes the artist’s style is so distinct, you’d want to make sure you’re complementing it, not competing with it. Take 
JONAH HEX, for example. Although I had a particular look on the series, whenever I did a Jordi Bernet piece, I adapted my style to suit his. Same deal with SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS. We had a standard style most of the time, but there were artists whose work was better served by doing something different.

You also need to bear in mind that creators change on jobs. With a creator-owned project or a miniseries, you can work with a fair amount of certainty that the team is stable, and therefore pairing this font with that artist is a reasonable choice. Ongoing series present a different challenge: you need to select a look that is more versatile--one that will still fly as the teams change.

Additionally, the editor, writer or artist may have suggestions. There’s really no one-size-fits-all approach.

Do you find your approach to a book like The Bridge, which is historical non-fiction, differs from superhero fare like Doomsday Clock or Shazam!?

Most definitely the approach is different. In some respects that’s due to the subject matter, but in your example, there was a much different--a much more important--variable in play: the audience. Odds are, a reader of DOOMSDAY CLOCK or SHAZAM! is familiar with the comic book milieu. With THE BRIDGE, we couldn’t make that assumption. We were hoping to attract both comic book readers and those new to the genre. In the case of the latter, we couldn’t presume that they were familiar with the visual vocabulary of comics. 

Who are your main influences when it comes to lettering books?

I draw inspiration from a variety of sources.

Before a comic book ever found its way into my hands, I was a reader of the newspaper funnies. There are aspects of that which shows up in my work. In particular, that background came in handy when I was lettering The Flash feature for WEDNESDAY’S COMICS.

Growing up, I started became exposed to the lettering in comic books. Back then, letterers didn’t always receive credit, but I started to become see certain names. Joe and Sam Rosen, Artie Simek. I’d being lying if I said I paid a lot of attention to lettering then. It was, however, the first time I became aware of story titles and the impact they had on the page. A little later, I discovered reprints of Will Eisner’s THE SPIRIT. I loved the way he married the art to the lettering, and how it was used as a storytelling aspect.

As a student at the Kubert School, I had a lettering teacher by the name of Hy Eisman. He has done some work in comic books, but he’s a career newspaper strip cartoonist. And at 92, he’s still at it, drawing both the POPEYE and KATZENJAMMER KIDS strips. He methodically broke down lettering into its molecular components. Hy has had a tremendous impact on me; I’m sure many of the students he taught over 40+ years can say the same. Dave Sharpe, Pat Brosseau, Jared Fletcher and Steve Wands are just a few of the pros working today who were taught by him.

Early in my career as a DC production artist, we had to be able to ape the styles of a variety of letterers. They all contributed to my education. Gaspar. John Workman. John Costanza. Ken Bruzenak. And of course, Todd Klein raised the bar for all of us.

Obviously, Richard Starkings and John Roshell changed the whole game by making digital lettering the norm.

Nick Napolitano and Kenny Lopez trained me in digital lettering when they launched DC’s in-house department; I was their first hire. Without them sharing their knowledge, I wouldn’t be doing this today. I’m not sure if I should thank them for that or put a hit out on them! Incidentally, Nick’s now a vice president at DC. Over 30 years ago, we sat next to each other as first-year students at the Kubert School. 

I learned a lot from the guys in the lettering department in those early days--from Nick and Kenny, and from Jarred Fletcher, Phil Balsman and Pat Brosseau. It was a real studio environment, and we each brought with us a different set of skills. Aside from Kenny, we were all Kubert alumni. I had a background in advertising, had been a production guy, and an inker. Nick was also an industry veteran; Pat had made a career as a hand-letterer for DC, Marvel, and Dark Horse; Jared and Phil were pretty fresh out of school, but they possessed a much greater knowledge of computers than some of us older guys. 

We all drew inspiration and knowledge from one another. If any of your audience aspires to work in the field, and they have a chance to be a part of a studio, go for it; it’s a great experience. When I was an instructor at the Kubert School, I used to tell my students that they could learn as much from their peers as they could from their teachers. And I learned from them as well. Knowledge comes from all directions.

I’m also influenced from outside of the comic book bailiwick. Back in the ‘80s, I worked for a small advertising agency, so I worked with text from a completely different perspective. I try to absorb inspiration from the world around me: book design, movie posters, magazines, signage, etc. When I worked in Manhattan, as I walked to the office from the bus station, I made it a point to observe the posters on Broadway, the store displays, etc. Scrutinize your surroundings. Anybody with functioning eyes can see; it takes effort to LOOK. That advice is not just for letterers, the same holds true for any who wish to be creative. Nothing is ever wasted; it all goes into your bag of tricks. You never know when you’ll find it necessary to access it.

I love your sound effects in Super Sons, to the point that I think your lettering is as much a character as Superboy and Robin.  Watery sound effects having a "dripping" effect and guttural noises with a sickly pallor used to evoke illness are incredibly inspired touches.  Does Pete make suggestions in the script or does he leave it up to your discretion?

Well, thank you. Writers as a rule don’t suggest how a particular SFX should be treated, and Peter is no different. He is partial to SFX that are transparent, and will indicate that from time to time. As long as I feel it will still be readable over the color, I try to comply.

I think most letterers will agree that SFX should have a visual relationship with the sounds they are conveying. Just as an inker (a good one, anyway) wouldn’t render chrome, concrete and flesh the same, so it is with lettering. I treat the coloring of SFX with that in mind, too. Generally speaking, warm colors for impacts, murky colors for creepy effects, purples and violets to express something mystical, etc. That’s just solid storytelling in my book.

Is there an effect you're particularly proud of?  One that came out even better than you thought it would?

Nah, I don’t know that any stick out in my mind. I’m just trying to convey something that happens in an instant. I’m not trying to get the reader to linger over my SFX--my job is to support, clarify and enhance the story. I will sometimes use the counters (those are the “holes” in letters like “O” and “D”) to frame the character being affected by the action.

Have you had any opportunities to design special caption boxes for any characters? Any favorites?

Yeah, I’ve designed a ton of them over the years. I guess once I’m happy with the design, I don’t give them much thought. Like SFX, their purpose is to be a component of the storytelling. I suppose my philosophy is if you’re going to create a distinct character caption, it should be readily identified with the character. And that’s for the reader’s benefit. You do any more than that, you’ve created a distraction. The trend nowadays is to have every speaker have a personalized look. There’s a danger in taking that too far. Sometimes black text in a white box is more than sufficient! It also makes the times when you DO create something special stand out more, giving it more impact.

Title pages are a different story. That’s where I really get to flex my creative muscles and it’s where for the most part, it’s permissible for me to get the reader to loiter a little bit longer. That’s the aspect of lettering where I might look back and think, “yeah, that came out pretty nice.”

Your personal style is pretty distinct, but in Doomsday Clock you evoke Dave Gibbons' lettering in Watchmen.  And, I must say, it is spot on.  Like your Super Sons lettering, it feels like a character as much as anything else in the book.

Thanks. I’ve very much enjoyed the challenge of channeling Dave. I’ve sold off or given away almost all of my comics, but one of the TPBs I’ve hung onto was WATCHMEN. It’s here on my desk and is pretty dog-eared from me referencing it on this project.

Again, was this written into Johns' script, or did you make the suggestion for that approach?

Geoff and editor Brian Cunningham’s vision from the jump was to match the look and feel of the original series, and I’ve done my best to remain faithful to that tone.

Did Gibbons provide assistance and have any input, or did you recreate the fonts and balloons from the ground up?

No, I’ve never met Dave, though I use Comicraft fonts based on his hand lettering. The balloons are all hand-drawn to emulate Dave’s.

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You've also done quite a bit of inking over the years.  Several letterers we've spoken with are also artists and graphic designers, which help both in creating personal styles and in balloon and text placement.  How do you feel that inking and illustrating inform your approach to lettering?  Does lettering inform your penciling and inking?

As a letterer, I’ve definitely benefited from my art background. We’re all working on the same page, so the object is to make sure that a) everything plays nice with each other from a visual standpoint, and b) we all work in concert from a storytelling perspective. The same concepts of composition, mood, movement, focus, etc. in illustration apply to lettering as well. Elements of inking such as contrast and separation translate to lettering design, too. 

I no longer ink--it was long sessions hunched over a drawing table clutching a brush for years damaging my hand and sending me to the chiropractor’s table three times a week that pushed me toward digital lettering, prolonging my career. I will say that learning hand-lettering would help an inker develop the fine-motor skills useful in that discipline.

You’re on a desert island. You have nothing but a crust of bread, a bottle of water, and a dialogue font. Which font?

If you think I’m going to do any work when I’m in a place where no editor can reach me, you’re nuts. I’m going fishing!

But if I HAD to work, Comicraft’s Meanwhile is a super versatile font.

Any characters or books you haven't lettered that you'd like a chance to work on?

At some point or another, I’ve been the regular letterer on just about all of DC’s main characters. I was chatting with Geoff Johns a month or two ago, and I told him that at this point in my career, WHO I work with is more important to me than WHAT I work on. Love working with Geoff, with Peter, with Scott Peterson and Kelley Jones, with Chris Duffy. Would love to do more work with Chuck Dixon. There are more names; those are just a few off the top of my head. I like when I get to collaborate with folks with whom I have a good rapport. 

I’ve been fortunate to have shared credits with a lot of terrific writers, artists and editors. I’ve got to work with GIANTS from my childhood, some who are still with us, and some who have passed. Joe Kubert. Ramona Fradon, John Severin, Russ Heath, Al Jaffee, Tony DeZuniga, Neal Adams. 

There have been a few people I won’t work with again, but thankfully, they’re in the minority. Overall, the industry has a lot of good people. Put me on a team of people who conduct themselves as pros, who all want to contribute their skills to serving the STORY above all else, and who want to see that the reader gets their money’s worth, and I’m a pretty satisfied guy. 

That said, I do enjoy working on high-visibility assignments such as DOOMSDAY CLOCK and flagship titles like DETECTIVE COMICS. The nice feeling you get when being invited to work on a project never gets old. And if Jonah Hex ever decides to saddle up again, I’d be happy to strap on my revolver.

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In general, do you prefer "thought balloons" or "narration boxes" to convey what a character is thinking?

The pragmatic “time is money” part of me is on Team Narration Box (they’re SO much faster to do), but thought balloons are superior. Narrative captions to me read more like voiceovers, whereas thought balloons (and thankyouthanyouthankyou for not saying “bubbles”), strike me as conveying a much more intimate, in-the-moment tone. There’s a nuance, but seeing the same text in a caption gives me the sense that the character has had a chance to collect those thoughts--it’s not that immediate vibe I get from a thought balloon. And you can toggle much more seamlessly between spoken balloons and thought balloons.

Somewhere along the line, some people got it in their heads that thought balloons are too comic book-y, and therefore childish. My attitude is if you feel that way, maybe you’re in the wrong line of work. Long live the thought balloons!

Just wish they didn’t take longer to execute! 

If there was one thing about lettering that you would like readers to know, what would it be?

I can’t speak for all letterers, but I would like them to know this: the reader is ALWAYS on my mind. As a letterer, I’m in the unique position of being the first person to see the marriage of the artwork to the text. I’m constantly making decisions I think will present the stories to the audience in such a way that their reading experience will be fuller. 

When I was working on SPONGEBOB, a former DC editor told me it was his son’s Declan’s favorite book. I really took that to heart. From that point on, Dec became my co-pilot. I would make choices I thought would aid him in following the story. 

The reader can spend their money on anything; I believe we have a responsibility to strive to give them their money’s worth. We may not always hit that target, but we certainly should be aiming at it.

Where can fans keep up with you and your various projects?

Potential clients can find me through my website, 
atomicmonkdesign.com. I’m not on Twitter (and from what I do see, maybe more people shouldn’t be either!). I do have a Facebook page, but my friends there are people I know from the real world. Fans would probably be bored there, anyway--I very seldom post anything to do with comic books. It’s mostly my wildlife and nature photography, hunting and fishing pix, stuff I cook, and my screwball (non-political) observations of life.

So the fans may not be able to keep up with me, but as I said, I’m always thinking of them! 

Rob, thanks very much for taking the time to shed a light on your process and lettering in general.

And thank you! Sorry I got a little long-winded and wandered off into the weeds. That’s what happens when somebody finally asks a letterer to talk!

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